Spotlight on El Salvador: The Countries of the Hemisphere Will Gather in This Central American Nation When It Hosts the OAS General Assembly

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At the solemn Monument to the Disappeared, the names of over 25,000 victims of El Salvador's long-running civil war are etched in an 85-meter-long wall of black granite. Tourists and locals alike visit this somber reminder of El Salvador's violent past which bears a striking resemblance to Washington's Vietnam Veterans Memorial. November 11 marks the anniversary of a major anti-government offensive launched in 1989 by the Frente Farabundo Marti de Liberacion Nacional (FMLN)--a leftist rebel group whose successors are today running El Salvador.

"We come here every year on November 11, the day of the offensive, and also on November 2, the day of the dead," said Carolina Solis, a middle-aged woman visiting the monument in the heart of San Salvador's Parque Cuscutlan to honor the memory of her brother, Edwin Omar Solis. Asked if El Salvador is better off today with the FMLN in power, Solis said that

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"Things are changing, but the right-wing government left us a lot of problems: education, for example," she said in answer to a question. "During that government, kids were going to school barefoot."

Not far from Parque Cuscutlan, at the downtown Catedral Metropolitana de San Salvador, lies the tomb of one of the key figures of El Salvador's civil war: Archbishop Oscar Romero.

A champion of liberation theology and an outspoken opponent of the military regime, Romero was assassinated March 24, 1980--one day after giving a sermon in which he urged government soldiers, as Christians, to obey God's orders by refusing to carry out human-rights abuses against civilians.

Cindy Portello hadn't even been born when Romero was shot. But the 23-year-old woman from El Salvador's eastern region says she admires Romero for standing up to injustice in her country.

"I come here in key moments of my life, whenever I begin something new," Portello said as she sat in the darkness by the famous priest's tomb, scribbling private thoughts in her notepad. "Oscar Romero was a voice for those who didn't have a voice. He realized the government was abusing human rights. He knew what was going on."

El Salvador's civil war, which killed some 75,000 people between 1979 and 1992, is never far from the surface anywhere you go in this densely populated land of 7.5 million--the smallest of Central America's seven nations. Indeed, it was the second-longest military conflict in Latin American history, ranking only behind Guatemala's civil war in bloodshed and duration.

But the country has made tremendous strides since then. In 2009, former journalist Mauricio Funes of the FMLN became president, defeating Rodrigo Avila of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) in balloting widely deemed to be free and fair. It marked the first time in twenty years that ARENA had lost an election and the first transfer of executive power to another political party since the end of the war.

"This is the happiest night of my life, and I want it to be the night of El Salvador's greatest hope," Funes said upon being declared the winner. Since then, the 51-year-old president has continued to inspire hope. Despite a struggling economy and rising crime (El Salvador has one of the world's highest homicide rates), Funes is still backed by 79 percent of voters, making him Latin America's most popular leader.

"This is the first time we have a leftist conservative government," says Eduardo Quinonez Caminos, director of the hotel division at Grupo Agrisal. "Most people expected a Marxist-Leninist approach to government after the FMLN came to power. But this president has proven that he's not so left-wing. He's more of a centrist, and he has the biggest popularity ratings of any president we've had in the past twenty years."

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Quinonez was interviewed over breakfast at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, official venue of the Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly meeting in early June. …

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